Ways World of Warcraft could keep factions but let us play with all our friends
I think at this point the Horde and Alliance need to exist as separate and somewhat adversarial entities in World of Warcraft. I haven’t always thought so, and if we were in 2004 and I was somehow involved in the creation of the game, I would definitely counsel against including factions or the faction divide. But it’s 2022, and the game has been out for eighteen years this year, and the two groups — and their division — have become a huge part of the storytelling.
Removing them would be a major event, and not one that I think could be easily navigated. After the events of Battle for Azeroth, I can’t see a way for the Horde and Alliance to ever be more than wary of one another. The destruction of major cities and the cyclical nature of their battles over the years has ingrained in both the sense that, even at their most peaceful, it’s only a matter of time until the next conflict.
But that doesn’t mean the players should have to deal with it as a constraint on who they can do things in game with. Your Orc Warrior shouldn’t have to be at odds with your wife’s Draenei Shaman. So how do we keep the Horde and Alliance as wary, potential adversaries without making it so players can’t run a dungeon with their friends because their friends really like playing fox people and they’re into robot Gnomes? Here are some ideas.
I didn’t sign up for the army, so don’t make me fight
One of the default assumptions in WoW seems to be that we’re members of our faction’s military hierarchy. You’re often called Champion by the people that lead your faction. You were dragooned into commanding an outpost for them in Warlords of Draenor. Even random civilians around town often defer to the player as some kind of leader. But it wouldn’t be particularly hard to tweak it so that your character isn’t in a box that associates them with their faction’s decisions as a whole.
We even see that in expansions like Shadowlands — whether you’re Horde or Alliance, you work alongside Thrall, Jaina, and Baine in the intro Maw storyline. It doesn’t mean your character has to have a hostile relationship with the leaders of their own faction, it just means you can aim the narrative away from a strict hierarchal relationship that puts you in a position to be ordered to do anything. Asked, sure — but quests can be written so that you can turn them down, or even work against them if you’re offended by the request. Imagine if Horde players had that agency back at the start of BFA — I’d still be playing my Tauren today.
Let’s really explore neutrality as an option
Taking it a step further, you can then make it so that players and their guilds can be seen as entirely separate entities from either faction — perhaps taking advantage of many neutral cities in WoW like Shattrath or Dalaran, they could even choose to incorporate a guild outside of cities like Stormwind, Ironforge, Orgrimmar, or Thunder Bluff. A neutral guild could allow players from either faction to join, to group together for PVP, dungeons, raids, you name it.
Perhaps players could even toggle a ‘neutral’ or ‘factionless’ condition, allowing them to communicate with and group with players from the other faction who had also toggled this state. You could work on this in a number of ways — it could simply become an addition to the game, like War Mode did — or perhaps it could simply be the baseline state of the game for anyone who didn’t have War Mode enabled, so that faction conflict would only exist as a limiting factor for players who deliberately chose to be PVP and thus at odds with players of other the other faction.
How to have your cake and tell a story about it too
There are and have been people who move from one place to another in the world throughout history even though those nations are in conflict. For instance, if people in the Cold War era could move from Soviet Russia to the United States, or vice versa, then an Orc should be able to move to Stormwind, or a Human to Orgrimmar. And that’s not the only way people could move between the factions — there are diplomats, trade negotiators and actual traders, even tourism could happen without the Horde and Alliance suddenly becoming best friends. All of these migrations and exchanges are in fact the first tentative steps nations take towards normalizing relations, and you could absolutely use all of this as a means to let players interact with one another regardless of faction without making the factions best friends.
You could quite easily tell stories about how the Horde and Alliance are even engaging in joint exercises against threats like the Silithid, dealing with the clashing styles of command and the difficulties of putting old grievances aside. Imagine a Night Elf Sentinel forced to lead a Horde unit through a dangerous Naga controlled coast to get to a rendezvous with an Alliance force, and the strain on everyone involved to not let the events of Teldrassil overcome their fragile détente.
The point is, the story absolutely needs to take the time to show the relations between the Alliance and the Horde and the consequences of all that’s happened, but the players shouldn’t be forced to either change factions or roll an alt on the other side to play with their friends. There are so many ways the faction divide can be preserved in story without it binding player choices. I mean, we can play Dark Iron Dwarves now, and yet there are still Dark Iron Dwarves trying to kill us when we go to Blackrock Depths, so if we can do that, we can go rock climbing with an Orc friend on Sunday and go to Warsong Gulch on Monday.
Should defection be a possibility?
I’m not speaking of an entire sub-faction leaving the Alliance or Horde here, although I can see possibilities there, too. There could be a story where some Blood Elves reach out to the Void Elves, trying to bring them back into the Horde fold despite the official opposition of Lor’themar and others. Or maybe there could be a group of Grimtotem tired of Magatha’s schemes but still hostile to the Horde trying and actually succeeding at getting some of the Shu’halo to campaign for Tauren separatist ideologies, pushing a union with the Highmountain and even the Yaungol and Taunka — these could be interesting stories.
What I mean is a lot simpler — if we’re not going to have neutrality that allows players to group up with players of other factions, should we allow for players to defect in order to keep playing the character they enjoy but do so with friends who chose the opposite faction? We already have faction transfer, but that changes your character — I’ve done it several times, and it never really feels like I’m playing the same character anymore after a faction swap. Going from a Human to a Tauren, even if I don’t change the character name and just play it almost exactly the same, it’s still not the same.
Honestly, though, I’d just prefer to make the Horde and Alliance factions work more like the Cenarion Circle or Argent Dawn do. Let an Orc grind up to Exalted with each Alliance city if they want. They have to start Hated, but they can make the climb, and then they can go into Stormwind and be treated as any other member of the Alliance. Don’t make them have to jump ship at all. Just let them be that one Night Elf who most Trolls think is okay. “Shaytan Hawksister? Oh, yeah, she saved my whole tribe from demons. She’s cool.”
Too much has happened for Horde and Alliance as a whole to become fast friends — it’s a major element of the narrative now, and it would be jarring to suddenly toss all the conflict and tension between the two. But an element of wanting to ease those tensions would make narrative sense and could be used to justify finally just letting players play with their friends, no matter what they chose to look like in game.
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